Adapted from information found at The St Nicholas Centre.
When Dec. 6 comes around, I think fondly of an experience I had as a young person in Hungary. Today is the feast day for St. Nicholas, and I remember putting my shoes out to receive a small gift from Saint Nicholas. I suppose it’s a bit of a Santa Claus-y thing to do, but I think that St. Nicholas is a far more interesting fellow to look at a little more closely because of his generosity, gift-giving, and life of faith.
Nicholas is the national saint of Russia and Greece, and churches named after him number in the thousands. He is the patron saint of judges, murderers, pawnbrokers, thieves, merchants, paupers, scholars, sailors, bakers, travelers, maidens and poor children. He is also known as the friend and protector of all those in trouble. Legends tell of his love for children, his kindness and the miracles that have been attributed to him.
He was born near what is now known as Turkey, in the Middle East during the third or fourth century. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still rather young. Informed by Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and grew up to become the bishop of Myra. He was imprisoned for his faith and died on December 6, 343 CE.
The most famous story about Nicholas tells of how he helped three unfortunate young sisters who all had suitors but had no dowries because their father, a poor nobleman, could not raise the money. Because of this, they could not marry, and were more likely to be sold into slavery. The Bishop Nicholas was a shy man and did not like to give money directly, so he thought of a way to give it anonymously. One night, as the first daughter approached the age to marry, the good bishop secretly went to the family’s house and was able to sneak a bag of gold inside without being seen. Later, when the second daughter prepared to marry, she too received a mysterious bag of gold. When the third daughter prepared to marry, the poor nobleman and father of the three girls was determined to find out who had been so generous. So he kept watch and saw the bishop drop another bag of gold into the house.
It has been said that Saint Nicholas climbed on the roof and dropped the third bag of gold down the chimney where it landed in a stocking hung to dry, giving us a reason to hang up Christmas stockings today. It is also said that the bags of gold were tossed through an open window and landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. These stories, however, have led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver.
Another, and one of the oldest, stories showing St. Nicholas as a protector of children takes place long after his death. The townspeople of Myra were celebrating the good saint on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into the district. They stole treasures from the Church of Saint Nicholas to take away as booty. As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios, to make into a slave. For the next year Basilios waited on their king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup. For the next year, Basilios’ parents spent their time filled with grief over the loss of their son. As the next St. Nicholas’ feast day approached, Basilios’ mother refused to join the festivities, and instead stayed home in prayer for the safety of her son. Suddenly, Basilios was whisked up and away where St. Nicholas appeared to him, blessed him, and set him down at his home back in Myra. Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basilios amazingly appeared before his parents, still holding the king’s golden cup. This is the first story told of St. Nicholas protecting children.
Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. When he was young, Nicholas sought the holy by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus’ life, passion, and resurrection. Returning by sea, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed. The terrified sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all. And so St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers.
Nicholas’ tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. In the spring of 1087, sailors from a seaport town known as Bari succeeded in moving the relics of Nicholas to the southeast coast of Italy. An impressive church was built over a new crypt and many faithful journeyed on pilgrimage to honour the saint. To this day pilgrims and tourists visit Bari’s Basilica di San Nicola.
So when Dec 6th comes along, these stories are revived and kept alive to tell of the importance of anonymous generosity, of a dedication to service to the least of the community, and to remember the deeds of a wonderful Bishop in the fourth century.
I think that Nicholas is a great Advent role-model, and I have always been fascinated to learn as much as I can about him. I wanted to share his story with you today because I think that the faithfully lived life of St. Nicholas is an example of what the Apostle Paul is talking about in his letter to the Philippians today when he says: “this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.” (Phil 1:9)
Advent and Christmas are times of the year when we really focus on love. I believe that people are a normally loving beings, and I like that Paul is acknowledging and encouraging the Philippians to be more so: to go above and beyond because God’s gospel and the work of God begins with love and grows it exponentially through Jesus Christ.
Christ taught that the greatest commandment is that we would ” love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) This is a love that we are supposed to feel and act out and know deeply within our very depths. And he went on to teach the identification of our neighbour though the parable of The Good Samaritan who comes upon the man laying half-dead and mostly ignored on the road.
In a way, St. Nicholas becomes a role model in putting oneself before others, of taking the risks on behalf of those for whom the risks would be greater still, and of simply learning to love with the knowledge that we are all created in an image of love. And we give thanks for people like St Nicholas whom history remembers year after year so that we may have more examples of living out of God’s love – that is, to live life loving as Christ loved with Christ’s own love.
I wonder if there are people now that we know of who live like that. I can think of a handful of people who embody that kind of love in their lives and I love them for it. I don’t know if I’ve ever told them or thanked them for their lives of modelling Christ’s love to me. I don’t know that we give enough thanks for those people, or the church, or the good news that gets shared out of our communities into our own lives. I don’t know that we seek to share Gospel-sized love with the people we encounter in our everydays – but I certainly feel that this is something we could all participate in a little more.
And maybe this is why Paul’s words are sticking with me this week. Through the letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages us to use our minds and our insight to affirm that all people are created in that same image of love. That we are all called to work in the world to discover what is best for all people, and to work toward a common goal that sees peace and love grow exponentially through the Holy Spirit and through the use of full hearts and full minds. Thanks be to God that we are called again and again to such a life of love.
Let us pray:
Holy Trinity, we thank you for the gift of your love in each of our lives. We thank you for the role models in our lives today and throughout history who teach us to live our lives out of that very same love. We ask that you would grow love in each of us more and more. Create in us the fertile grounds for the fruits of the Spirit to thrive. Let love, joy, peace, wisdom, purity, and righteousness abide in the hearts of all those who live in your Gospel love, and encourage us all to share those gifts with all the neighbours around us in our everydays. Amen.